Is the Toronto police budget really ‘untouchable’?

ANALYSIS: Calls are growing for Toronto to defund the police. Here’s what we know about the service’s budget — and about the prospects for change
By Monika Warzecha - Published on Jun 22, 2020
The police make up the single largest line item in Toronto’s operating budget. (Christopher Katsarov/CP)

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Sandy Hudson can quickly list the names of people who have died during interactions with police. Regis Korchinski-Paquet, Chantel Moore, Andrew Loku, Abdirahman Abdi, Pierre Coriolan. There are more.

“It is wilful blindness at this point to ignore the fact that this is a problem in Canada,” says Hudson, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto. Between 2013 and 2017, Black people were 20 times more likely to be killed by the police than white Torontonians, she says, referencing a 2018 report from the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

Around the world and in Canada, protests against police brutality and racism have sparked questions about police behaviour — and demands to change police funding. In the United States, Minneapolis city council voted to disband its police force after an officer killed George Floyd, setting off protests in the city and across the country. Cities such as Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco have also agreed to cut money from police budgets.

In Toronto, the police association dismisses the idea that budgets have seen major increases over time, while critics and some councillors suggest that there's historically been too little pushback on police costs and that cuts are needed now. Is the Toronto police budget "untouchable" — and will calls to defund the police change the bottom line?

police net operating budget
Data from the City of Toronto; visualization by Monika Warzecha.

The police make up the single largest line item in the city’s operating budget. This year, council okayed a $1.2 billion gross operating budget for the Toronto Police Service. After such things as funds, fees, and subsidies, the net operating budget — basically, the part that comes from taxes — is about $1.08 billion. That amount has grown from about $888 million in 2010.

Last year, police costs made up about $703 of a $3,020 property-tax bill, significantly more than the TTC, which came in second, at $521, or any other department.

Mike McCormack, president of the Toronto Police Association, says the idea that the police budget has been increasing over the past decade is inaccurate. “When we look at the space that we occupy within the budget of Toronto in general, it has always been the same,” he says. “It's been between 9.8 and 10.1, so it has about 0.3 basis-point variance.”

But Hudson says the police budget is “just too high, based on everything else that we need in terms of services in the city of Toronto” and notes that the police get far more funding in comparison to transit, paramedics and firefighters, or public housing. “The idea that we cannot provide safety and security to our society without a force that kills Black and Indigenous people is outrageous to me.” She says that money spent on police should be reallocated to other services.

breakdown of a 2019 tax bill
Data from the City of Toronto; visualization by Monika Warzecha.

Councillor Josh Matlow also thinks the approach to policing in the city should change: that’s why, later this month, he says he’ll put forward a motion asking that a line-by-line accounting of the Toronto Police Service budget be made available to council and that the city be granted more power over the bottom line (the Ontario government technically gets final say on the budget, thanks to the Police Services Act).

Matlow is also requesting that next year’s budget be cut by 10 per cent and that hundreds of millions of those dollars be moved to other services or initiatives, such as affordable housing, anti-racism education, and community-led alternatives to policing. He says he knows it’ll be an uphill battle: “It's a third rail — it's like an untouchable budget. There's this sense that you don't go there or else it'll just be a big controversy with big political pushback.”

McCormack calls the upcoming motion to cut 10 per cent from the budget “emotional” and a grandstanding move by politicians: “Tell us where you think we can find those savings, because we're looking for savings all the time. It's a concept without a plan.” He takes issue with the idea that police dollars should be given to other services. “We have to have a strong social net or social fabric to give people opportunity, hope, and the ability to advance themselves — I'm a 100 per cent for that,” he says. “But it's not one the other: it goes hand in hand with policing. And these programs that are valuable and have an impact on our communities need to be funded on their own merit.”   

Hudson says she finds it encouraging that Matlow has publicly called for defunding the police but that she’d like to see more substantial cuts. Matlow himsef notes that many people who have contacted him say 10 per cent is too little.

The Toronto police pointed to a population boom and to recent increases in major-crime indicators in their 2020 budget request. Matlow argues that crime stats can be used to make either case: Some say more crime means a need for more police. Others argue that a rise in crime proves that increasing funds for police doesn’t work.

per capita cost per year
Data from the Toronto Police Service; visualization by Monika Warzecha.

The Toronto Police Service’s annual statistical reports indicate that per capita spending on police has gone up over the past decade. The annual reports take into account the actual expenditures of police in a year and the city’s population projections. Spending per capita was $391.20 in 2018; in 2008, it was $317.60.

McCormack says the police are looking for savings all the time, noting that the force has moved to civilianize more jobs and has been reduced by about 600 officers since 2010.

According to Matlow, boosting the police budget is often an easier sell: it’s harder to show social services are working since, politically, that involves proving a negative. “When you keep putting money into the police budget, you can announce if you're mayor or premier that this many police officers have been hired or this many CCTV cameras have been put up,” he says. “It's harder to prove how many young people you have saved by providing an opportunity for them.”

He also says there's very intense lobbying by the police association and a general fear that, if a major crime were to occur in a ward, a councillor who’d voted against more police money might be seen as somewhat responsible.

Currently, about 89 per cent of the police’s operating budget is salary-related. As of December 2019, the starting salary for a cadet in training was around $63,000. But there are a number of people working for the Toronto Police Service who make considerably more.

The 2019 Ontario sunshine list, which tracks the pay of public-sector workers making $100,000 or more, had 4,876 entries for people employed by Toronto Police Service. Seventy-five of them made more than $197,279 — John Tory’s salary as mayor of Toronto.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation has written op-eds against raises for Ontario teachers and increased staffing at city hall, and petitioned against Tory’s rail-deck park and tax increase.  It’s mostly been silent on the topic of police budgets.

When asked about calls to defund the police and about the police budget’s connection to property taxes, Jasmine Pickel, the federation’s Ontario director, told TVO.org via email, “I have no comment on this issue.”

Michael Thompson, the deputy mayor of the east area of Toronto and the city’s only Black councillor, says that he finds the term “defund the police” inflammatory and that he’s skeptical of the call for a 10 cent per cent cut, given how much of the budget is tied to labour costs. However, he says he has spent a large part of his city-hall career looking at reducing police spending and believes crime needs a preventive approach.

Thompson felt the police-budget pushback firsthand when he was appointed to the Toronto Police Service Board by the late Mayor Rob Ford in 2010 and tasked with finding efficiencies.

“I remember the first thing that I was told by the police was that I was sent to take their money away from them,” he says.

In 2014, he was dropped from the board by Tory. But Thompson tried to keep the budget conversation going. In 2016, he filed a motion to cut $24 million from the budget and to allocate the money to child-care subsidies, youth spaces, and crime prevention, among other things. He was defeated 28 to 12, even after whittling down the cut to $12 million.

Since the defeat of his 2016 motion, Thompson says, he’s had discussions with other councillors about reducing the police budget. “I've not had a lot of support from members of council,” he says. “The police are quite effective in terms of lobbying members of council. I think the police are also quite effective in terms of lobbying the general public.”

Further up the chain, Tory initially dismissed calls to cut funds in the wake of Matlow’s suggested motion. And, when Premier Doug Ford was asked about defunding the police earlier this month, he told reporters, “I don't believe in that for a second.”

Tory, Rob Ford, and Doug Ford all at times worked to shave funding from police budgets. The Police Services Board, which Tory sits on, in 2017 okayed a report recommending a hiring freeze and a $100 million budget cut.

Rob Ford had a complicated relationship with police budgets. He campaigned on a promise to hire 100 new officers in his first two years as mayor but later backed off. He also asked for a 10 per cut to the police budget, eventually working out a 4.6 per cent reduction for 2012 and a 5.4 per cent cut for 2013.

Doug Ford cut $46 million from the provincial police budget in 2019.

Under the banner of keeping taxes down, reining in spending, or, to use a Rob Ford-ism, stopping the gravy train, politicians have aimed to curtail public spending — and sometimes even public spending on police. But asking them to use that money for other services appears to be a step too far.

Thompson isn’t entirely optimistic about the part of Matlow’s motion that deals with wresting control of the budget from the province: “I think that, in light of the current climate, where the premier has steadfastly said, ‘I'm not interested in reducing the police budget,’ it's never going to happen.”

When he was looking for efficiencies during his four-year stint on the Toronto Police Services Board, Thompson says, the city lost about $30 million. “Although the police seem to deny this, we deduced and reasoned that tickets were not being issued,” he notes. Instead of tickets and citations, drivers were given warnings, “so, essentially, the city was not collecting money.”

“The police have a number of measures that they could put in place to affect us and our bottom line when we affect their bottom line. It's a bit of a tit-for-tat approach.”

Thompson, Matlow, and Hudson have all expressed a need to rethink how distress calls are handled. If a person is having a mental-health crisis, are armed officers really the best approach?

In a recent interview with the Globe and Mail, Tory appeared slightly more open to a review of what the police are asked to do, as well as to discussions about whether some of the money could instead go toward social services.

Hudson understands that the city is constrained by the fact that the province holds sway over the police budget. But she says that Toronto can look at other ways to scale back policing —  for example, asking the province for transit funding instead of paying special constables to police people on the TTC for fare evasion: “I think that the city could put a stronger voice behind what activists are saying.”

On June 19, the TPSB was set to consider a number of recommendations aimed at targeting anti-Black racism and enhancing mental-health services and community input. One of them involved making a line-by-line accounting of the budget available to the public. Tory referred to them as “first steps” but said he believed they would “result in real tangible changes that will produce more accountable policiting.” The TPSB decided to defer the discussion, however, saying that it had “heard important calls from the public and stakeholders for additional time to consult on any recommendations that come before the Board.”

Matlow’s motion is scheduled to go before council on June 29.


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